In the darkness you can only see him if he smiles. Teeth hovering in the air, shimmering like pearls. In the daylight he’s your shadow. He wears a hat slanted to one side. Underneath it, his oily hair is slicked back. His suit trousers are high-waisted and his jacket double-breasted. He smokes. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his filthy habit since the day he died.
Neither has he moved house.
…and Astrid thought the house was empty when she moved in.
Astrid is ten years old. She has a gift that she might have preferred to have been without had she known any different. She can see through people, straight into the core of their hearts. Mostly there’s nothing to see, just a greyscale, value 0-255. At times the core is a roaring fire that can’t be classed as good or bad, it just burns endlessly. The intensity of those people can make her feel frightened. She once saw a man who carried a rainbow inside himself. He couldn’t speak and sat indescribably beautiful, twisted and dribbling in a wheelchair. She had to stop and stare, until she was told off. And very occasionally she meets a person who carries a gentle flame. Her nursery teacher carried one of those and Astrid loved her.
The second most common phenomenon to the greyscale is a core that’s black, bitter and shrivelled like a bad walnut. These people’s immediate and self-propagating unhappiness makes her feel sad. There are a lot of them, therefore Astrid carries a lot of sadness inside herself.
Astrid has a brother called Jonathan, who’s eight years old. Her parents are called Sue and Will. They’ve lived in their new house for three months. Will and Sue think it’s a dream come true after years in a flat, working long hours in the city, saving and getting the right promotions. Now they have a house! A house with a garden, a downstairs, an upstairs and a loft. A house casting long shadows in the dying evening sun. Shadows that reach all the way to the bottom of the garden and part way up the garden wall, as if attempting a desperate escape, always caught and reined in by night’s darkness descending.
Astrid can hear her parents say that it’s too dark inside and they discuss knocking through and installing French doors. And they say it’s a bit cold and discuss triple-glazing. Neither mention the delicate rising movement of the hairs on the backs of their necks as they walk up the stairs. Or the frequent urge they feel to look over their shoulders to catch a movement registered by peripheral vision… did someone just leave the room? Ah the cat. It’s only Pirate. The black and white cat that’s so pleased with having a garden that he only comes inside occasionally, and then quickly runs outside again as if he just can’t stand the stale air of complete enclosure for even one moment.
From the very first day Astrid feels uneasy. The flat they moved from was warm, friendly, light and airy: a happy space where her soul floated through the days like a wispy white cloud with the vast blue sky all to itself. This new home is heavy like a wet woollen blanket of gloom wrapping itself around her, clinging to her and trapping her.
“Creaking steps and banging doors are features that no self-respecting older house would dare to be seen in public without.”, says Astrid’s dad when she wonders about the noises.
Apart from that, Sue and Will would say the only downside with moving to a bigger house is that you can never find anything. They’ve bought plastic boxes and labelled them, they’ve bought shelves from IKEA and organisers of every kind. Yet things are not where they’re supposed to be. It’s never the car keys or the laptop or anything considered to be essential. It’s things like the hair ties for Astrid’s hair. Sometimes not a single one can be found in the morning before school. Or it’s a pen. Just one pen! Big packs are bought and within days not one is left. Socks! Hardly ever a matching pair. Sue and Will are reasonable people and know that this happens in every household. But they do find it strange when, one morning, a porcelain doll that Sue played with as a child is no longer sitting on her dressing table.
Astrid doesn’t find it strange. She knows the reason because she talks to him at night.
It happened the first week they moved in:
“Shhhhhh! Please don’t scream. I had to come and see you. I’d tell you my name if I could remember it…”
Astrid’s chest rises and sinks with her breathing. Her eyes, big enough to encompass two moons, flitter around the room, searching for comfort. After an age, after finding nothing to fasten them on and after realising that no-one’s coming to her aid, she swallows and nods. Her mouth is uncovered and nothing happens. The teeth stay where they are.
There’s a long silence. He just sits there. The space where his heart ought to be is vacant, a gaping black hole, the most intriguing form of nothingness, but he doesn’t seem to want to hurt her.
“I don’t like you living in our house.”
“I don’t like you living in my house. I was here first.”
Astrid has a keen sense of fairness and fends off this blatant lie.
“No, you weren’t! We moved in and there was no-one else here.”
“I was here. This is my house. I was born here and I died here. Actually, I died outside the house, but I was living here when I died.”
The unreasonable logic of this statement demands a response.
“But if you’re dead you’re not supposed to be here.”
“Yes, I am. I am supposed to be here. I was given a job. I don’t like my job, but who does? ”
“What’s your job?”
“You’ll find out. I’ve got to get back to work now.”
The darkness moves and projected onto the retina nestled behind the sockets of her skull, Astrid receives the image of someone lifting a hat to bid her good night. The teeth are no longer there. She calls her mum and dad and cries and they tell her not to worry about bad dreams. Still, she feels worried about this one.
The next day happens to be the first day that something goes missing. The scissors! Where are the scissors? Jonathan is going to a party, the present has to be wrapped and the scissors are not in the kitchen drawer with the tape, the cotton string and the clothes pegs. They are not on the desk or on the table or in the toolbox. In the end Sue uses the children’s craft scissors.
They have just moved in: maybe the scissors haven’t been unpacked yet… but they ought to have been as all the boxes labelled “kitchen” were the first to be unpacked. Never mind, they must be in the wrong box. (But how can they be in the wrong box?).
From then on, Astrid becomes difficult to put to bed. She’s very upset and cries and even kicks, which is not in character. Sue and Will have to take turns to lie with her in bed until she falls asleep. They tell each other that she misses the flat and is adjusting to the move. It’s perfectly normal.
About a week later Astrid calms down and she believes that perhaps the presence in the darkness was a dream. Just one of those dreams that seem very real.
After that it’s another three weeks before he appears at her bedside again.
“Hello! I think I scared you last time.”
This time Astrid doesn’t scream. She pulls the duvet up to her eyes and moves up the bed, away from the apparition with his hollow chest.
Astrid is silent and still. She pretends that she isn’t there. She pretends so well that she manages to reach far into her consciousness, where she stands on her mental tip toes, just about to touch her mental fingertips on the off-switch in order to complete the shut-down when he says:
“I’ve got something to give you, although I’m not really supposed to.”
Vacant eyes opening: the lost scissors land on the bed next to her. The lost scissors were replaced by new ones when the old ones never turned up. Astrid stares at them from another place and is gradually pulled back to her body by the irresistible force of curiosity.
“But, how did you find them? We thought we’d left them behind.”, she whispers.
“It’s my job.”
“You’re a dead thief?”
“No, not exactly.”
“What are you then?”
“I work in the place of lost things. The type of lost things that can never ever be found again. Properly lost things, not just momentarily mislaid things, whether momentarily means a few seconds or fifty years. My department only deals in goods that are classed as lost forever.”
Astrid doesn’t entirely understand.
“But, if you take something it’s not lost. It’s stolen! You stole the scissors, they weren’t lost.”
“It depends how you look at it. If you steal something and it never finds its way back to its rightful owner, then it’s lost forever. But, you’re right! We’re only supposed to deal in things that are genuinely lost. It’s just that sometimes I have to fill the quota by taking what’s needed.”
Astrid instinctively doesn’t like the idea of a place where things that are lost forever go, but she’s not quite able to think why or formulate it in words. Instead she says:
“What’s the place called?”
And with that the sensation of a hat lifting in polite farewell reoccurs and he’s no longer there. After a while of sitting completely still, checking for every sound and movement, Astrid swings her legs out of bed, touches her toes on the carpet and runs into her parent’s bedroom. She lies next to her mother, shivering and looking for unattainable reassurance.
The morning after this episode, at breakfast time, Will discovers that the bin-bags have run out. He says it can’t possibly be, because he bought some not long ago. A whole roll with 20! Sue suggests that maybe they did run out, because she had another clear-out when unpacking the boxes and she filled bin-bags to give to charity and put some more out for the rubbish men to collect. Will doesn’t believe that all the bin-bags would have been used up in this manner. It’s not possible.
“They can’t all just have GONE!”
Astrid falls off the chair and the breakfast bowl of cornflakes smashes onto the floor.
Bed time becomes difficult again. In the end Sue and Will decide to take the hard line. Astrid has to stay in bed. She can have the light on until she falls asleep. A sticker chart is put on the wall for good behaviour and if she completes it before her birthday, then she can have that new bike. The purple one with gears.
This time she knows that he will return and she realises the pointlessness of struggle. It’s four weeks. During those weeks more things disappear in the house. Most notably are some school cardigans. She gets told off and is instructed to look for them in school and to ask her friends in case they’ve taken the wrong one home. (What friends? She hasn’t made any yet.) She gets told she needs to be more careful with her things.
“Yes, I will”, she says quietly.
“Hello! I scared you again. That’s not my intention.”
The teeth change shape, to a half moon resting on its back in the air. A smile!
“I don’t want you to come and see me.”
“No, of course you don’t. I don’t really want to come and see you either.”
“Then why do you?”
“It’s hard for me to explain. Shall I tell you how I died instead?”
Astrid doesn’t nod, she doesn’t shake her head and she doesn’t reply. She closes her eyes and wishes that he would go away and never come back. Our shadow takes this as assent.
“I was quite young. I was 36 and the year was 1946. I had survived the war. Oh you don’t know what war’s like, do you? It’s not a nice thing. It’s a terrible fight in which the rules make it acceptable for people to kill each other. I don’t understand it myself. I had to go to Italy first, then to Egypt where I was injured and I came back to this house that was my parents’. I couldn’t hear very well and I was blind in my right eye, both from shells. Not the beautiful ones you find on the beach. Ugly shells from bombs that fly through the air and hurt you. One day walking home I was crossing the road and I didn’t hear or see the motor car coming from the right. It hit me and it hurt like hell and then I died.”
“Yes, it was sad. I didn’t at all expect to die that day.”
“Where did you go?”
“I went away for a bit. I got assigned my role and then I came back here while my parents were still alive. I had to remain here with them and their memories of me.”
The darkness in the room is hanging densely from the ceiling and the air is humid. A gentle rain is pattering against the window creating rivulets that trickle in countless meetings and separations.
“Did you get to meet them when they died?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Are they still here as well?”
“No they’ve moved on. They’re gone.”
“Yes, to the land of lost forever.”
Astrid is processing this information. She feels her heart beating fast. She swallows a few times.
“I’ve got to go now, but don’t be afraid of me. I’d like it if you weren’t.”
He hesitates for a bit, as if revealing confidential information to unauthorised ears, before he reluctantly says:
“I’ll need Pirate.”
Astrid feels a cool breeze on her forehead. She thinks he stroked it. This time she stays in her bed. She’s too tired to wake her parents up and she knows that there’s nothing they can do. She feels weary. Her limbs are heavy and numb. Her thoughts like ballast inside her skull weigh it down onto the pillow. She couldn’t lift her head or get up even if she had enough energy or desire to do so. She falls into the deep sleep of resignation.
Astrid sits silently at breakfast. Her brother is noisily telling stories like always and normally she would compete for attention, but she finds the strength required to move her eyes away from the crumbs on the table surface is beyond her this morning. Opening her mouth is out of the question. She only has one thing to say anyway and someone else will say it for her. So what would she gain by speaking up? She would but expend precious energy that she needs in order to keep her leaden heart beating, at least for appearances.
Will has been out to collect the newspaper. He walks slowly into the kitchen looking serious and sits down with his family. He sits still for a minute. He touches his forehead with his right hand. It’s shaking. He opens his mouth and closes it. He opens his mouth and speaks:
“I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Pirate …”
“… is gone.” whispers Astrid inaudibly to her cornflakes.
…has been run over by a car!”
Jonathan is shocked and cries violently, while Astrid continues her morose silence. Both are acceptable reactions to the death of a pet think the parents. Let them grieve, they think.
And Astrid grieves. She grieves for everyone she’s ever known and loved. She’s submerged in an ocean of tiredness. Her body is a disobedient weight she has to drag around. She drags it to school and back, to the dinner table and the TV sofa, to story time and to the toothbrush station. Bedtime has changed from fear to relief. Lying immobile is the only state of reasonable comfort. It’s the only time her thin body doesn’t present a nuisance, although having to breathe is still burdensome beyond belief. He must come soon. He must.
It takes another few weeks. It’s been raining heavily all day and it looks to continue through the night. He sits on her bed and says a quiet:
“I’ve made you feel uncomfortable.”
She feels great relief that he has come.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
He says nothing. A drop of water falls from the ceiling and then some more. A leak? (Tears.)
“I’m very lonely Astrid. I’ve been lonely for a very long time.”
He’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the floor. He’s taken off his hat and is holding his cavernous chest with his left hand as if in great pain. His right hand is resting on top of the hat. She reaches out to touch it … frosty grass on a winter’s morning.
“So… I asked for an assistant…”
The rain clouds have separated enough to let the newly risen moon disperse its borrowed beams in through the window. Astrid sees shapes of light and dark on the floor created from familiar objects in her room that she no longer feels any attachment to. She realises that she’s not afraid any more. The seemingly unbearable burden of tomorrow has presented her with an alternative, a new form and direction and it no longer worries her. Suddenly she feels happy.
“What’s it like in Gone?”
Head still bowed towards the floor while remembering the sensation of a heavy heart in life and feeling duty-bound like the soldier he once was, he quietly replies:
“…Gone is a place where every lost thing becomes precious, too precious to return. Gone is a land of gentle light and benevolent shadow. Gone is all the time that has passed, collected into one single spectacular moment. Gone is the one missing piece… If you like you can take my hand and I’ll show you? I think you would like it there…”
As the effort of breathing ceases she becomes weightless and she sees the form in the dark turn from shadow to solid. She sees the man as he was. Strong and healthy with dark hair and a kind face free of scars he smiles at her. Holding a gentle candle flame in one hand to light up the darkness, he reaches his other hand out to her. She takes it and it feels warm. They leave through her window on the second floor. Travelling weightlessly among the stars in the sky, crossing barriers through which we can no longer follow them.
In the morning Will and Sue wake up to find that their daughter is gone.
For them there’s no consolation to be had.